[Seamus Heaney was born the same year Yeats died (1939) but arguably, nationality and the reputation of poet apart, that is the only real link between them. Five weeks after Yeats’ death the poet Auden published his ironic In Memory of W. B. Yeats. Five weeks after Heaney’s death, in similar spirit or perhaps the spirit of the Irish wake, one offers Remembering Seamus Heaney followed by a short essay, Beyond the Cult of Seamus the Famous, on poetic reputation].
REMEMBERING SEAMUS HEANEY
You have returned to the place of your muses, the earth.
There you rest after having your naturalist’s death
And naturalist’s life of digging with pen where even
A spade might not usually go in cow dung and
Spawn slop. You have now reached the ‘something more’ of
‘Somewhere’ which you felt that the faith you had
(Or you hadn’t) but wouldn’t discuss, is about.
Should one mourn or make the jolly of wake for you who,
Breath sometimes fragrant with whiskey, were ever
Present to Ireland, itself ever conscious of you,
Alert to your most distinct person out walking, offering
Always a smile as though to bless every inch of the turf
And splinter of shale from Arklow to Aran’s wild shores?
“Top of the Morning to Seamus the Famous!”,
T’was a great day to sow seed or mow. You
Might have been as you looked, a master of Tao,
But heat never reached the retort, so
No alchemist’s flower, no part of the tincture
That wasn’t manure could enrich barren fields.
In your garden the rat lurked like half poisoned fruit,(1)
Your verses were thick with the shock of the ugly
Oysters you fancied like talk for its own sake (2)
Touching and squeezing anything soft was your love.
The world and endeavour of heroes you
Judged by farm labour, men busy at work,
Its image, the ‘straining rump’ of your da,
That aisling sky maidens would not have observed (3).
You had virtues of which, shining forth above all,
Was how humble you were, admitting yourself
To be valley to mountains like Goethe and Yeats.
Which was true, for you had not clearly the vision
Of any that’s easy to name – if your chief guide
Was Wordsworth could anyone tell? – but few
Could deny the exchange of AE and Earth Breath
For the farting of frogs. Even so, you left
The wide world in thrall, not least great lands
Of the North as though to pure magic or Ibsen.
They felt assured you conveyed them mysteries
Untold for which they were morally bound to
Award you “the” prize. In the north it seems
Harder to see what’s body and clothes and
You dealt with a conjuror’s skill in the
Naked delight of imperial robes.
The confusion of death-bed once over,
Will you be sent beneath a cold heaven
Onto streets all unclothed as Sligo’s poet
Would say? (4) Certain is you do not await
What you readily deemed a Protestant fate –
A last Trump arising to factory horn….(5)
Shout, wail, mourn, crack the wake jokes. In the
Drizzle of morning and mists of the evening,
Treading through swamps of the Earth Mother’s sow
To a naturalist’s vision your nation will bow.(6)
Copyright: Rollan McCleary 2013
1) “Outside the kitchen a black rat/sways on the briar like infected fruit” Heaney, Glanmore Sonnets, Sonnet 9.
2) The poem Oysters in Field Work is word rich but largely barren of meaning. The poet’s mouth is less a vehicle to convey messages than an “estuary” for sea food.
3) “My father digging, I look down/ Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds/Bends low….” Heaney, Digging.…. This contrasts with the inspiration of the Aisling”, a form of vision. Irish bards regularly pictured an archetypal, muse-like figure as a sky maiden supplying their vocation or themes. Even Yeats had Maud Gonne, AE Susan Mitchell and McCleary’s East-West Puer Poems incorporates the symbolism of the Vedic goddess of dawn as muse. In Digging, which is Heaney’s declaration of vocation and poetic intent, there is no connection to vision or even just a concept of muse. Unless it would be the devouring earth mother herself, Joyce’s “sow which eats its own farrow”, an earth muse or muses can hardly be said to exist; they are psychologically counter-intuitive for poetry generally.
4) “Confusion of the death-bed over/Is it [the spirit] sent out naked on the roads…” Yeats, The Cold Heaven.
5) “A factory horn will blare the Resurrection”, Heaney Docker, (his rather negative portrait of a Protestant worker).
6) If anything cravenly bow. Enda Kenny’s tribute is impossibly excessive. “Across the world Seamus Heaney was and is seen not alone as Ireland’s better self but I believe its best-self possible”. This best-self possible is one “open to the potency of myth”, something if not undermined (except in his translation work) at bare minimum in Heaney. North can look at the ocean and write of “the secular powers of the Atlantic”. And what mythic mind could refer to “the unmagical invitations of Iceland” ?! One cannot escape the suspicion that in a rapidly secularizing Ireland with traditional reverence for the priest much eroded, the substitute becomes the poet as voice of a hoped for spiritual truth.
BEYOND THE CULT OF SEAMUS THE FAMOUS
In its way my poem – however coincidentally – parallels and suitably follows upon last month’s blog with its Mother Teresa, Mother Confusion. The subject is similar and it’s the big con, and both poet and saint were trained within Ireland even if MT wasn’t born there. Obviously one doesn’t suggest Heaney lacked technical proficiency as a poet, insight as a critic or skill as a translator (his Beowulf translation raised him to bestseller status), still less that he was other than the genial,considerate person he is widely reported as being. Arguably however his popular success undermines and threatens something in poetry itself as Mother Teresa has subtly undermined modern Christianity with work not all that it seemed to be.
Just as with Mother Teresa, the adulation of Heaney – “genius”, “giant”, “superstar of literature” – has been astonishing. The Independent’s obituary of 30th August observed, “the list of his honours is breathtaking….few available honours passed him by”. Quite so. Breathtaking is the only word. And meteoric must describe the rise in public esteem if one considers that nowadays schoolchildren study Death of a Naturalist often as their introduction to verse itself, whereas back when it appeared in 1966 critic Eavan Boland could observe, “unless it conceals a profound allegory [it] is a lengthy, disappointing description of frogs”. . In all history, unless possibly Virgil taken under the wing of Caesar Augustus, no poet, not even a poet laureate, has enjoyed anything like the accolades. A father of poetry in the modernist mode, T.S. Eliot, an artist of wider range and accomplishment, received nothing like it (though possibly in his case he is to blame in that elements of anti-Semitism tainted his reputation).
Heaney is not and never can be the successor to Yeats he has often been called and as obituaries have been repeating. For a start Yeats believed in the virtual identity of poetry with religion. And most essentially poetry is about a degree of transcendence – certainly it arose out of the ecstatic/religious function. Ignoring this dimension for only the familiar, for the brown bog of life one might say, poetry falls flat (or gets stuck). Even a perfectly modern poet like Adrienne Rich eventually came round to the view that poetry can never hope to stray too far from spirituality. Which it can’t.
If serious poetry is mostly out of fashion and lame today it is because it exists within a secular world in which its exponents feel obliged to observe things, mostly just objects, like a scientist in a laboratory while they work with and possess only disjointed words, scarcely a language to express real ideas. Moreover contemporary poetry almost flees developed ideas and philosophies. It has certainly abdicated virtually any species of “prophetic” function and unlike Yeats Heaney, who thought of the poet as if anything a contemplative, tried as far as possible to avoid socio/political engagement. One response in the face of his native Ulster’s problems which otherwise he tended simply to regret, was an early retreat across the border to Wicklow’s countryside. It was however perhaps half intended as its own political statement.
Without usually expressing any very marked views, and even because he didn’t, Heaney slotted easily into the secularist role of detached artistic observer, the word spinner and wordsmith (even if some were determined to read meanings and magic into his words that weren’t especially there). His observations were enlivened less by deep emotion than an intense quirkiness that easily led on, as realism easily does, to a gratuitous ugliness which further escapes the function of transcendence which it’s poetry’s role to cultivate. It is no objection to this point that Heaney was deemed so popular, “the most widely read poet in English”, “the greatest living poet” and “irreplaceable”, “one of the greatest poets ever”. Beyond what owes here to some media/publishing hype and the impositions of academic curricula, the fact is that Heaney does appeal – to those today who don’t readily “get” poetry and don’t terribly wish to be challenged by it and its more ascensional, idealistic impulses.
Presented almost humbly and apologetically by him, Heaney’s opus undeniably soothes and reassures a certain sector of the public that half craves mediocrity at the same time as it relishes admittance to the esoteric, elitist literary circle that employs unnecessary obscurities and technicalities by way of variation upon the otherwise unbridled realism. The glum, rather deadpan, monotone muse, voice of the grey day making declarations about life and just anything in virtual prose rather than poetry, is one authentic expression of the modern. (Most modern poetry could even be defined as lesser Heaneyism or would-be haiku). We scarcely hear anything else and maybe because it bolsters many people’s democratic aspirations to – one fine day – assume the poetic mantle and write in similar mode. However….in the past and still today both ordinary people and specialists like critics Harold Bloom (who can allow Heaney to be a good poet but not a Yeats) and the late Kathleen Raine, a proponent of neo-romanticism, have only devoted themselves to writing or appreciating poetry with the express purpose of transcending normal expression and perception, at least on occasions (there are none in Heaney) touching the sublime. This is something any national poet can usually be expected to do, rather than getting mired in the sordid, trivial or just embarrassing….
But that is what Heaney too often does, including in relation to his unfortunate father whom he might have spared. If his earliest work in Death of a Naturalist, draws the readers attention to his father’s straining rump, his last work as in The Human Chains’ poem The Butts draws attention to the “tonic unfreshness” associated with memory of his father via his old suit and the need to attend to sticking a sponge into the “meagre armpits” of the aged parent to wash away the smell of oxter sweat. (Should we call Heaney’s materialistic poetry a new form of body poetry with a trajectory from rump to armpit?). A second cousin who fell victim to the Troubles didn’t fare much better by way of memorial. His corpse is recorded as having “blood and roadside muck in your hair and eyes.” (The Strand at Lough Beg). Other relatives in their coffins in Funeral Rites are described with their “puffed knuckles” and “igloo brows”. This is the poet the singer Bono calls always “elegant”. (No need to wax facetious about his claim that Heaney’s poetry has helped to keep him “afloat”).
Yet typical of the emperor’s clothes misreadings of Heaney’s recourse to details of the sweaty oxter kind, there has even been comparison of this to the paintings of Vermeer. Vermeer’s brand of tranquil, luminous realism is so special it has something of the mystical sublime about it. The comparison with Heaney’s delight in just the tasteless or coarse cannot and should not even begin to be made. Only a society which has lost all bearings where art is concerned could give it the time of day; and if it were really true as Ireland’s Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, had it upon announcement of Heaney’s passing that he was “the keeper of language, our codes, our essence as a people,” then it would have to be an Ireland in a down and lost phase. It belongs more to any Irish essence to boldly declare rather than like Heaney to camouflage the self and opinions with words. Also as the above notes indicate, Heaney doesn’t assimilate the more usual imagery and psychology of the Celtic (and almost archetypally universal) muse, opting psychologically instead to be swallowed by the sow/earth mother.
Some may dismiss all reflections of this (effectively neo-romantic) variety as expressive less of conviction than resentment. Though there might be justification enough for precisely something in that vein given statements like those in Catullus Redux, (see August blog), resentment is not true as regards the spirit in which this particular blog was written, which was rather one of humour. Never having principally aspired to the rare career of poet, for this writer of mainly prose it’s not a case of an entire life having been highjacked through the direction upon it of certain negative values where publishing and the arts community are concerned. In the face of the Heaney phenomenon and despite the unacceptable situations evoked by Catullus Redux (even if for a quarter of a century they convinced me poetry must be deemed a defunct medium for the artistic expression and social communication of anything), only hilarity is possible.
Looking through Heaney’s verse with what Bloom kindly calls its “soil sense” and then at images of him to accompany this blog – a pic with the appearance of gesturing critics away seemed the most appropriate! – had the effect of bringing on irrepressible laughter. There truly is a dimension of Hans Christian Anderson and the emperor’s clothes about it all and in the long term this will be realized. It should already be apparent from how, privately, Heaney really thought of poetry and other poets (how he felt about Yeats was rather disgusting. See http://dlvr.it/43p7NS ….where of course automatic admiration describes it not as indecent but “surreal”).
Seamus Heaney, rest in peace! Without envy for your particular setting or career triumphs and without personal malice at your passing, it’s possible to say thanks, bro, for all the laughter you’ve provided. You really were rather dreadful, eccentrically so, but you meant no harm even while you managed to hoodwink society and devotees as surely and successfully as Mother Teresa. How clever you were and also how fortunate! As regards your relation to the state and standards of contemporary Irish culture, perhaps one should think along the lines of your comment to Christina Davis, the winner of an Oxford poetry competition you oversaw: “Well your poem wasn’t very good now was it, but it was better than everyone else’s.”
[I have belatedly seen that an article by Sean Thomas for The Telegraph in England is much in accordance with my revisionist position on Heaney]